When The Legend of Korra first aired, I was far from the first person to make the connection that Asami’s history was more than a little similar to that of Bruce Wayne’s. Traumatic murder of a parent at a young age. Part of an absurdly wealthy family to the point that she’s more or less Republic City royalty. Genius intellect, lives in a giant mansion with a butler, highly trained in martial arts, and uses the coolest gadgets. Then Book 4 rolls around, and we find out that Future Industries not only rebuilt Republic City, but modernized it too.
Sounds like Bruce Wayne to me! “Asami is Batman!” we said. And yeah, that was a pretty fun idea. But then the series finale dropped, and it all just clicked. Asami Sato isn’t Batman. She never was. Asami Sato is Kate Kane. The Batwoman.
To say that I have strong feelings about these two characters is quite the understatement, but beyond that I’m able to remain unbiased for this piece since the similarities just kept growing. Also because I love them both so much. The connection between Kate—who is also Gotham royalty etc—and Asami had always been there, but during James Tynion IV’s debut Detective Comics Rebirth arc it nearly grew into a one-to-one comparison.
Clearly, I have some sort of “type” in favorite fictional characters. Seriously, there are even meta-textual similarities between these two women that goes all the way up to the company producing the content in the first place.
It’s crazy. Also, MAJOR SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING.
The most difficult part is deciding where to even start. Part of me wants to tell you the story of both of them until they deviate, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to do this. There’s just so much to unpack that we’d have to backtrack quite a bit regardless of the method. So, I guess I’ll work from the top down. From development to “where they are now”, as it were.
…right after we get the single most glaring one out of the way:
Neither are straight. Kate Kane is a lesbian. Asami Sato is bisexual.
A Tale of Two Pre-Productions
It’s a relatively well known fact for Legend of Korra fans that Asami was originally conceived as a tall, green eyed femme fatale. An equalist spy who dates Mako to get close to Korra and betray them. But, during the planning phases of Book 1, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the Executive Producers/Creators of both Korra and the original Avatar series, decided that they liked her so much they made her one of the heroes instead. This, of course, lead to a rather interesting development:
Asami’s character design was left unchanged, along with the first half of her plot beats throughout the course of Book 1. She still hits Mako with her moped, still asks him out, gets him to meet her dad, sponsors his team, etc. The biggest twist was that there wasn’t a twist. Asami is just that compassionate.
Now, Kate’s case is a bit more murky. Her original design is most likely not the one you’ve seen, if you’ve seen her at all. The modern Kate Kane—not the Silver Age created-out-of-gay-panic Kathy Kane who got married to Batman, hysterically enough—was first introduced in 2006’s 52 #7 as a scorned ex-lover to Renee Montoya’s larger noir detective story. Her character design evokes the same femme fatale tropes (plus she’s also tall with green eyes) that Asami’s does, though with a reversed color scheme.
Of course, she’s not actually a femme fatale either. She only looks like one.
However, it doesn’t end there. While Asami’s character itself was altered—as was Kate’s, though this was far more logical retcon—Kate’s design was completely overhauled over the next few years to have her better represent the kind of person she needed to be. Not just a standard run-of-the-mill “lipstick lesbian” in her outward appearance, but someone who gave the middle finger to typical gender roles, embodying a rather fluid mix of traditionally masculine and feminine traits to better reflect her personality.
And the end result:
Sounds like Asami, doesn’t it?
DC/Dark Horse Secret Origins Special #1
Curiously, the proverbial heart of Kate’s origin story—and her entire foundation as a character—isn’t relevant to this piece in the way you would think. Being dishonorably discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) just before her final semester at West Point was what forced her to become Batwoman, rather than what many assume the reason to be: being present for her mother and sister’s murder on her twelfth birthday.
It’s tangentially related to the sequence of events that lead Kate to become a vigilante, but all it really did, narratively, was push her to become more like her father and follow the Kane family tradition of military service. Which is something she would have done anyway, and she’d still be a lesbian, so she’d still be Batwoman.
Just like how Asami would still have idolized her father, wanting to follow in his footsteps and keep the family business of engineering brilliance going, even if her mother had never been murdered during the robbery. The fact that they both belong to an oppressed and often disenfranchised people would still ring true as well. Kate’s been Jewish since the day she was born, just as Asami has always been a non-bender.
Both women proved themselves prodigies in their chosen field, as their fathers’ had decades prior. Hiroshi Sato was once considered the world’s most brilliant industrialist, and Colonel Jacob Kane has a record of military service that can only be described as extremely classified.
Kate was the top of her class at West Point, rising to the rank of Cadet Captain over her entire battalion. Asami grew to become some kind of MacGyver-wunderkind who redesigns an entire city’s infrastructure (transit, water, electricity, zoning, etc), can build whatever they may need at the moment out junk, and explicitly understands how everything works. And also how to make it explode.
As a direct result of the murder of Gabrielle Kane and Yasuko Sato, Kate and Asami have extensive mastery in a variety of weapons, martial arts and acrobatics.
Though Kate’s training is admittedly far more comprehensive, which makes sense considering her role. Think a Green Beret multiplied by a Navy SEAL and then concentrated through the mentality of a “one-man-army”.
Additionally, their mentality towards combat is rather similar. Asami goes for the most direct route to disabling an opponent, as she was most likely instructed in how to fight benders more than anything else. They’re her biggest threat, and her dad was an Equalist. She can’t attack at range, but they can. It comes down to closing the gap and taking them down as fast as possible. If she didn’t have the glove, it’s heavily implied that she’d be breaking a lot of bones.
Kate is in pretty much the same boat. Except she does break those bones. She’s got a welcome aversion to She-Fu and exploits her environment in ways that are so damn obvious Batman just wouldn’t consider it. Smothered alive by giant demon centipedes with Wonder Woman in a pitch black cave? Well. They’re bugs. So she starts splatting them. Because they’re bugs. Duh doi.
Need to take down the guy who once broke Batman’s spine? Rock. No, really. She bashed Bane’s face with a rock.
They’re both considered by the media to be “daddy’s little girl” and a Rich Idiot With No Day Job, when anyone who meets them for more than fifteen seconds immediately realizes just how wrong that is. The first part, at least.
Initially, Asami didn’t have a job (supposedly), and while it’s implied that Kate does contribute quite a bit to the community of Gotham City, since in order to be a socialite and relevant you actually need to do things, the specifics there have never been clear. But, neither of them could ever be described as “daddy’s little girl” aside from when they quite literally were.
The Part Where It Gets Seriously Weird
Before we got to the bigger bombshell (pun entirely intended!) moments, and why Kate and Asami have a near-identical moral compass, there’s a bunch of these not-so-little side-connections that I can’t leave out. They’re just so specific and yet, they exist in both of these women’s lives. Like how Kate and Asami met a romantic partner, who would eventually become a detective and teammate, during an automobile incident.
Notice I did not say accident.
Or how they both met the loves of their lives at a fancy city gala held in honor for that very person?
Or how, due to a variety of factors—bad writing, executive meddling, forcible change in creative team/animation studio; take your pick—they spent an extended period of time acting so absurdly out of character and moronic, along with everyone else in the story, that you really weren’t sure why you were even watching/reading this anymore?
….or that they’re both the little spoon…
…or that they forged a strong connection with an actual demigod by saving the world together…
Also tasers gloves.
Or how both of their dads serve as primary antagonists and oversee operations on a major metropolitan area from the bridge of an airship—right that’s the bombshell!
Sins of their Fathers
This is where it all comes together. See, for quite some time Jacob Kane’s major misstep with his daughter was not telling her that they never found Beth’s body the day she was murdered. That Kate’s twin sister could be alive out there somewhere, despite the fact that he spent the better part of a decade trying to find her and came up with nothing.
It’s a very dangerous situation, since it would be cruel to get Kate’s hopes up with no evidence, but at the same time she does deserve the truth. And maybe he’d have told her, someday, long after he’d accepted that there was no chance in hell he’d ever find her body.
Except he didn’t get that chance, because Beth returned to Gotham City as Alice, an insane supervillain who only spoke in verses lifted from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and thought herself the title character. She attempted to drown Gotham in cyanogen chloride, which is basically cyanide. She also happened to be the new leader of the same cult that once stabbed Kate through the heart, believing her to be the chosen sacrifice—look, just go read 52 and Elegy if you want that story.
Point is, Jacob lied, and Kate discovered that the madwoman she’d been fighting was her twin sister all along…just before she fell to her supposed death.
Right, so until recently, this was the biggest schism between Kate and her father Jacob, and it’s where this article would, originally, have started to wrap itself up. But, just as Jacob and Kate were beginning to mend things between them, the other secret popped out. The one about him being the leader and mastermind behind an elite paramilitary organization with technology far ahead of its time operating under the singular goal of ensuring that what happened to his family would never happen again.
Now, doesn’t that sound awfully familiar?
Just as Asami unwittingly led her friends and allies into a trap within her own home, so too did Kate by trusting her father. She brought him into the Belfry (think the Batcave, but in the center of Gotham and way more bleeding edge) as an expert on the new threat they were facing, dubbed The Colony, as they operated like an elite military unit. Turns out, he’s the one in charge, and knew she’d do this after his soldiers successfully captured Batman.
Both fathers try to get their daughters to join the cause, now that they know the truth. Kate and Asami are forced to make a choice between siding with what little family they have left and what they know to be morally right. And they do make the same choice, but with Kate it’s not that simple, partly because of what the Colony actually is.
The Colony is a sanctioned branch of the U.S. Army tasked explicitly with combating the worst evils that threaten the country by any means necessary. Jacob Kane did not create the Colony, nor did he co-opt it. His government tasked him with a mission, which just so happened to coincide with his own greater goal. Even when they do go rogue, it wasn’t for any selfish need on Jacob’s part. He doesn’t even get to escape with them, but they still carry on.
The Equalists are straight-up violent revolutionaries who effectively aim to commit genocide. They take over an entire city with the intention to keep expanding their reach until bending is wiped off the face of the planet. Now, that is impossible, but the Equalists still kill God knows how many people to accomplish their goal, and manage to destroy an entire naval fleet. They systematically eliminate any possible form of resistance; the police force, the council, and all benders within the city limits. There’s no real nuance here.
They thrive on rage and prejudice. Everything is personal.
It’s important to understand that Jacob Kane is not Hiroshi Sato, just as the Colony cannot be equated to the Equalists.
Jacob’s grief didn’t manifest itself into anything besides grief. While his methods in this arc are arguably beyond acceptable losses—killing hundreds of Americans to save hundreds of thousands—he’s not doing this for himself.
Hiroshi lost himself in his mourning and lust for revenge, turning the love he had for his wife into a delusion of righteousness. And this disparity is explicitly reflected in how the rest of this plays out for the both of them.
None of this makes Asami’s decision easier; it just makes Kate’s harder since there is so much more going on here. Jacob isn’t even a villain. He’s just the antagonist. A Well-Intentioned Extremist. Barely.
You need to understand. Kate has dreamt of something like this ever since her dishonorable discharge. All she’d ever wanted to do was serve. It was the only thing that gave her purpose. So when she relinquished it to uphold her integrity—she could have lied to her commanding officer about being gay, but didn’t—she fell into a downward spiral. And it wasn’t pretty.
Eventually, she “ran into” her cousin Bruce (yup, look it up) as Batman outside of a bar, after having defended herself from a mugger. He helps her up to her feet, and vanishes into the night…but not before planting that idea in her head.
Not just the easy one, that it could be anyone under that mask. But that the batsignal isn’t just a warning, or a call for help. It was also a call to arms. She starts operating as a vigilante, her father finds out, and instead of shutting her down, he supports her. Realizes that she’s not wrong in that this is the only real way she can still serve. He calls in his old unit to train her. And they put her through hell and back, over and over again until she was finally ready.
So, here’s her father, revealing to her once again that he’d been lying, and in a reality where Beth had never returned, or Kate had never discovered what he hid from her…she’d have said yes. She’d have said yes because this isn’t a costume for her. It’s a uniform, and her father is offering a real one. Quite possibly a better one, too. It’s everything she could have ever wanted in a position like this. You can see the temptation as she rolls it around in her head, despite feeling betrayed all over again.
But, because of what happened with Beth, she fights him. After all, it’s not like she can trust a single damn word that comes out of his mouth anymore. It’s more than that, though, and I’m trying not to spend too much time on Kate, but the fact of the matter here is that there’s even deeper reasoning for why she doesn’t side with her father.
It’s not entirely that she doesn’t trust him, or even that he’s killing people. She always knew that her father did some really shady stuff for the government, but never the specifics. Rather, it’s that he just can’t see what he’d be taking away from her.
Kate has served two flags. Two ideals that she tried to make her own. The Stars and Stripes, and the Bat. That is to say, she has never worked under Batman; she has never followed him personally. Greg Rucka said it best in a 2009 interview with Newsarama where he explained that it’s “…the difference between following an individual into battle or following a flag – a symbol. In the latter, you’re taking up that flag yourself as your own.” But the military, her father’s military, didn’t want “people like her” serving the country, so she found the Bat instead.
She has worked alongside the other vigilantes of Gotham for years—in current continuity it’s around seven; trust me I did the math—and not once, not one single time have they ever told her to stop. They have never told her “No.” They have never taken her for granted. They have never abandoned her for who she is. They all understand that they’re on the same side, fighting essentially the same fight, with the same mission. It doesn’t matter where any of them come from, as long as they do their jobs.
It’s what she thought serving in the military would be, in a sense. It’s a form of unity and acceptance that parallels Asami’s experience with the “new Team Avatar”. She’s not a bender, but that’s not important to them. She can still help by being herself, and they want her to help. They want her there. Hell, they need her there.
So, for Kate, joining her father isn’t just putting aside all of the lies and manipulation—even if his only goal was to give her a better life, which he already succeeded in—it would also be abandoning the duty she defined for herself.
No matter how great the cause he’s pitching, she can’t toss people to the curb like the Army did to her. Same as how Asami can’t dedicate her life to hurting others since she knows exactly how much pain that brings. Even still, Jacob, much like Hiroshi, tries to make amends before all is said and done. It doesn’t work.
Then, once it becomes overwhelmingly clear that Kate and Asami won’t follow them, they stop trying to convince them.
There’s no point to it anymore, even though their daughters continue to oppose them with everything they’ve got.
Thing is, Jacob never retaliates. He never fights back. He never strikes Kate, no matter how hard she hits him. There’s even a moment where she puts herself in the direct line of fire between him and his goal.
But, unlike Hiroshi, Jacob orders everyone to move on to the next target, because her life is still the most important.
As long as she’s safe, it doesn’t matter if she hates him.
Hiroshi, though…Hiroshi tries to kill his own daughter. He corners her in a hangar, and attempts to violently crush her to death with a mecha-tank. Because she has betrayed him, of course. Nothing she could do or say could convince him otherwise. That she hadn’t been “turned” by those disgusting benders. She’s dead to him. There’s no hesitation. It’s just murder.
In the end, they’re both taken down by their daughters. They’re both brought to justice, even if the larger problem—whether it be the omnipresent League of Shadows who might not even exist or non-bender oppression—isn’t solved by arresting them. Hiroshi attempts to run after Asami refuses to kill him. Jacob tries to use a teleporting airship.
Neither are successful.
Asami and Kate: Sisters in Suffering
What more is there really to say that I haven’t already? Aside from the fact that Jacob’s alive and Hiroshi’s dead, this is where the story ends. For now. While Asami will never get the chance to mend her relationship with her father, despite trying to in what little time they had left, it’s not out of the cards for Kate. Not entirely, at least. It’ll be hard. Harder than the first time, but if she wants to get there, they’ll make it work.
Plus, it’d be super awkward during the high holidays if Kate and Jacob just hated each other from across the table. Which inevitably puts Beth in the middle. Who isn’t dead, by the way. Anymore. She died from the fall, but the cult that believed her a prophet brought her back to life. And then she saved her sister from that vampire I mentioned waaaaaaaaaaaaaay at the top of the page with that link referencing controversial narrative choices. So I guess the moral of the story is…
Don’t lie to your kids about terrorists, dead siblings and conspiracies? Yeah, that sounds about right.
All images courtesy of DC Comics and Viacom. Gifs made by Kylie.
In Scorpion, I like my women…oppositional
Scorpion had many flaws and there were plots that could have been handled better. Thankfully with a small exception they were able to write decent female characters which gave us a variety of characteristics and strengths. While leaving the characters on opposite sides of the spectrum.
The waitress liaison
When we meet Paige she’s a waitress at a diner who’s barely getting by. She works two jobs and everything she earns goes to her son Ralph.
We know very little about Paige. There were just a few details that we know. Her father died and her estranged mother is a con women. Their relationship wasn’t the best but they managed to repair it. (Although Veronica leaves at the end of episode 3×14.) Not without leaving some cash for her daughter and grandson. It’s clear to see that Paige tried very hard not to become a mother like her own. She’s very attentive to Ralph’s needs and even though she isn’t aware that he’s a genius in the beginning, she tries very hard to connect with and understand him. She protects her son fiercely.
Paige is a college drop out. During the show she took some night classes in European history to finish her education. Although Paige isn’t a genius, she often contributes some useful ideas to solve problems or offers a comment that helps the others to find a solution.
Throughout the course of the show, she starts understanding and learning more of the science. Her main area of expertise is communication with clients and other people that the team meets. That’s why Walter hired her. She’s supposed to be their liaison to the normal world. She also often takes charge and helps the team to refocus as their minds tend to wander. Paige isn’t a mom only to Ralph—she has to take care of the whole team as they do things like forget to eat.
The waitress had some problems fitting in at the beginning. She didn’t really know her place or role, but with time she became a natural at her job and solidified her position on the team. She did have some trouble with Happy, but they worked it out while dangling on a broken cable in the air.
As wonderful as she sounds, Paige is only human and has flaws like any of us. She is stubborn to a fault and doesn’t like to admit defeat, which doesn’t always sit well with Walter. She can be overprotective of Ralph. Paige has abandonment issues. They can originate from her mother or Drew leaving her when Ralph was little. She was also cheated on. Even though she had abandonment issues, she often used her own fear against Walter who has the same problem. She left him at the end of season 1…which was understandable since Ralphs life was in danger but after that she did it again. Sometimes she lets her emotions cloud her judgement.
Paige is the epitome of a struggling single mom who pushes trough no matter what. Most of her actions are dictated by her heart and the love for her son. Although flawed, she is an excellent example on how to master life’s challenges
The mechanical prodigy
Happy Quinn is a genius mechanic with a rough exterior. She often seems as if she doesn’t care or feel. It’s not true because under the tough shell hides a loving women.
She grew up in a foster home after her mother died. She didn’t see her father until she grew up and found him. Her dad (Patrick) has an Auto repair shop, which can be viewed as the source of her mechanical talent. Repairing stuff is also how she bonds with him.
Her father isn’t the only special man in her life. She shares a profound bond with Cabe, who has kind of stepped up to the role of her father. He was the one who gave her away on her wedding.
Although she may not seem like it, she cares about a selected few very much. Especially team Scorpion. She nursed Walter back to health after he spent some time in the rabbit hole, showcasing her gentle side. She even married him so he didn’t get deported to Ireland.
Happy shared a special relationship with Toby. They got married after she divorced Walter and planned to start a family together. They tried to get pregnant but even then they met another obstacle. Sadly we’ll never know how that plot ended because of the shows cancellation, but I digress.
What I find special about their relationship is the strong foundation in friendship and how well they know and trust in each other. Toby is the only one who didn’t abandon or betray her.
Happy is a representation of every women who makes it in a field dominated by man and was hurt by life. Regardless of that she, was able to build a family and gain success.
The new chemist on the block
We meet Florence as the new chemist who moves to the building next door to the garage. She isn’t a genius, but she’s very smart. She started her own company but lost it. She then moved to start a new business venture.
She can’t really get along with the team in the beginning. Within the course of the show, however, their relationship starts to get better.
Personally, I didn’t enjoy this character. She was created to be a competition to Paige and to show a really smart individual who isn’t a genius but has the same problem as them. Sadly the character comes off as inexpressive and bleak. Her story and problems didn’t manage to get my attention or interest me.
I enjoyed her growing relationship with Sylvester, but it went down the drill since Flo had to have a crush on Walter. The character had potential and maybe with time she could grow on me but alas we’ll never know
The genius whispering sister
Megan was Walter’s older sister. She was a sickly child with a happy attitude. She was one of the few people who understood or tried to understand Walter and build a relationship with him no matter how different he was. She was very ill. She had multiple sclerosis (MS), which eventually killed her.
Even though she was deadly ill, she soldiered on and always saw the glass as half full. She was always kind and lived her life to the fullest. Megan inspired everyone around her, and comforted them when needed. This included Walter and Sylvester in the same episode, at one point (1×12).
She always supported and stood by Walter. Megan was her brother’s biggest cheerleader. Being ill didn’t stop her from having her own opinion. She didn’t want to be on a respirator and she got her way.
Something worth mentioning is her relationship with Sylvester. This particular romance was sweet like a middle school one—the feeling was strong and build on a foundation of trust. Megan gave Sylvester enough strength and courage to go against Walter’s wishes and marry her. Even if they only had a short time together, they were very happy and Megan died having lived a full life.
Megan was the character that showed us that even in the darkest times there’s always hope and a chance to be happy.
Although the woman of Scorpion are on opposite sides of the spectrum, they are united by one characteristic. Strength. Every female character showed strength in her life and soldiering on, making them prime examples on how to handle obstacles.
Images courtesy of CBS
Game of Thrones 3×02 Rewatch: Long Things, Dumb Words
Tuesday means one thing on TheFandomentals: we’re back with another installment of The Wars to Come, a deep dive into Game of Thrones early seasons in an attempt to understand what happened. Last week, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D) penned a fairly competent opening to the third season. This week, Kylie, Julia, and Jana are ready for another of Vanessa Taylor’s finest, with “Dark Wings, Dark Words.”
Beyond the Wall, Mance makes it clear to Jon that he won’t hesitate to kill him if he finds out he’s faking his allegiance. After all, the reason he united everyone was to get them to understand they’d all die if they didn’t move south, so he is very focused. Mance then takes Jon to meet Orell, a skinchanger who entered the mind of a bird overhead. Once he comes back to, he informs the group that he spied “dead crows.”
Speaking of those crows, the Night’s Watch brothers began their slow journey back to the Wall. The exhaustion gets to Sam, who kneels down to give up after some taunting by Rast. Edd and Grenn do what they can to rouse him again, but it’s Commander Mormont who gets them all moving by assigning Rast to Sam. If Sam doesn’t make it back, then neither will Rast.
Heading up to the Wall meanwhile are Bran, Rickon, Osha, and Hodor. Bran is still having his crow dreams, though in this one, a strange boy about his age appears, telling Bran he can’t kill the crow since it is him. Later in real life, the same boy manages to sneak up on Bran’s camp. When Osha threatens to kill him if he takes another step towards Bran, the boy’s sister holds a knife to Osha’s throat. He introduces himself as Jojen Reed, with his sister Meera. He explains to Bran that he does have prophetic dreams, though Bran is also a warg thanks to his ability to control his direwolf. He also says the raven is something else entirely, and that it “brings the sight.” Osha tells Meera it’s shameful that she has to protect her brother, though Meera just shrugs it off.
At Robb’s camp, news arrives from both Riverrun and Winterfell. The former is that Hoster Tully, Cat’s father, has died. The second letter explains about the burning of Winterfell, and no sign of Bran and Rickon. Robb tells this to Cat, who grieves and asks if she’ll have to wear manacles to her father’s funeral. Robb turns his army to march to Riverrun, though it’s clear not all the Northern Lords want to go. On the way, Talisa approaches Cat to try and talk to her. Cat makes it clear that she blames herself for everything that’s befallen her family and cites her treatment of Jon Snow as her selfishness that doomed them.
Someone whose self-blame is a bit more deserved is Theon, who finds himself tied up in a dimly lit room underground. He is tortured, while he is asked his motivations for taking Winterfell. However, it’s clear they’re not interested in his answer. A man sweeping the floor comes up to Theon after the others leave and slightly eases the tension in the device for him, saying that he was sent by Yara and plans to save Theon later that night.
Elsewhere, Arya continues her travels with Hot Pie and Gendry, the latter of whom teases Arya for her terrible choices in the three names Jaqen gave her. They are soon found on the road by a group of men who easily outnumber them, including Thoros of Myr and Anguy. They call themselves the “Brotherhood without Banners,” and quickly piece together that they escaped Harrenhal. The brotherhood buy the trio food at an inn, and Arya lies about their escape, saying that Gendry forged them weapons and they fought their way out. Thoros says they’re free to go, but just as they’re heading out, Sandor Clegane comes in, who instantly recognizes Arya and identifies her to the room.
Speaking of trying to avoid tension, Jaime and Brienne continue their travels, as Jaime tries to make conversation by figuring out Brienne’s former allegiance. He guesses that she was in love with Renly, though the mocking stops when an old man with a loaded horse passes by. Jaime says Brienne should kill him, but she refuses. Later, they have to cross a bridge together, and Jaime sits down, purposely dragging out the process. Brienne tries to rush him up, but Jaime manages to grab hold of one of her swords. They fight, and just as Brienne manages to best him, a group of men displaying the Bolton sigil appear. As it turns out, the old man did recognize them, and they are taken captive by the Bolton troops.
Finally, down in King’s Landing, Cersei tries to talk to Joffrey about his view of Margaery, no doubt concerned at her son’s fondness. She points out that Margaery had been engaged to Renly not so long before. Meanwhile, Shae tries to warn Sansa of Littlefinger, implying that he wants to have sex with her. Their conversation is cut short when Sansa is summoned by the Tyrells. Loras walks her to where Margaery and her grandmother Olenna wait. Olenna is very critical of the men in her family and makes it clear that she has a strong grasp of the political situation. The two women ask Sansa about Joffrey, since Margaery is to marry him. They promise no harm will come to her, and Sansa tells them that he’s a monster.
Margaery gets to see that fully on display, when Joffrey summons her and ask if the bedside of a traitor was her proper place. She quickly turns the conversation around, puffing up Joffrey’s ego and feigning interest in his new crossbow. She then hints at killing something with it and letting him watch her do so. Shae is also trying to sort out sexual interests in a conversation with Tyrion. She goes to him to try and figure out what to do about Littlefinger because of Ros’s warning, but quickly becomes jealous of Tyrion’s past purchasing of Ros’s services, as well as his comments about Sansa being attractive. However, they have sex, temporarily resolving that situation.
Does Tyrion want Sansa? Did Cat doom everyone? And will Margaery really have to kill something for Joffrey’s enjoyment? We’ll find out next week, but for now, let’s break down what we just saw.
Initial, quick reaction
Kylie: Well, there’s that cliff the show begins to fall off in Season 3. There were a lot of parts of this episode that worked well, and I genuinely enjoyed. But there’s just so much invented that doesn’t quite work, and it’s quite obviously done with the intent of “improving” the plots. The drop in quality is not subtle for those moments. In fact, just writing that recap the drop in quality is not subtle, but how the hell else do you frame that Shae conversation?
Jana: This is where you start getting whiplash from the draaaastic fluctuations in quality between scenes. I’d say about 75% of this episode was fine or even good, and then we have a self-flagellating Cat doing a crafting project on the road.
Julia: The one thing about this episode was how LONG it was. Seriously, it just kept going and going. There were actual highs this time, but my eyes hurt from all the rolling in other parts.
Kylie: Marg was my highlight last week, just for a pretty effortless performance that’s enjoyable to watch. This week that’s still the case, but my annoyance at her scripting has finally caught up. However, I will give a highlight to Jack Gleeson in his performance. I think the material is a little mixed in terms of how well it worked (and some of it is the result of trying to age up Joffrey), however he is such a talented actor that it makes up for a lot of it. He has this ability to turn the mood of a scene on a dime, and you see his entitlement, his cruelty, and his vulnerabilities all at once. It’s really brilliant.
My lowlight was the Reeds’ introduction. It wasn’t the most unpleasant thing to watch in this episode by a long shot, but just…why? What are we supposed to make of them from this? They’re mystical? Dramatic? It just came across as random, forced tension, when it would have been genuinely nice to have a pleasant interaction as an opening. A reminder why it is Northern Lords are so loyal and everything.
Jana: The Time Warp Trifecta was really working for it this week, at least for me. Though Margaery’s scene with Joffrey was supposed to be cringey, I guess. And Talisa was the least worst thing about her scene with Catelyn. That conversation between Tyrion and Shae, though… What even was that?
Julia: Omg, “The Time Warp Trifecta.” Thank you so much for being part of my life, Jana.
Jana: Nevertheless, nothing makes me scream more than Catelyn self-flagellating over… Not loving Jon enough? Even though in the same breath she mentions doing things for him most highborn women wouldn’t even do for their own children? And what’s this bullshit about wanting to ask Ned to legitimize him? And being jealous of Jon’s mother? Good god, what a mess.
(Never forget, three seasons from now, all of Book!Catelyn’s fears about Jon threatening her children’s claims will come true. Too bad Show!Catelyn had completely different concerns, apparently.)
Highlights… Hm. I mean, any scene that gives Sansa something to do that resembles her book storyline is nice, and Diana Rigg is a treasure. I feel like this Sansa maybe gave in a little too quickly, but other than that, I guess that’s my easy highlight to pick. Followed closely by Brienne and Jaime fighting on the bridge.
Julia: Lemon cakes is a very easy highlight. There were even some women doing needlework in the background! And cheese boy! Bless his heart. And it’s kind of all I can think of for an unironic highlight.
An ironic highlight might be the patriarchy magically appearing in King’s Landing, because god did it come hard. Wise women obey, guys! And what even is anal sex? Fun times.
The Cat thing was so horrible on many levels, especially the ones Jana mentioned. Legitimating Jon, Cat’s concerns being framed as primarily jealousy… but did we forgot the torture scenes? Maybe we tried to.
Quality of writing
Jana: Varied, is the word I’d use here. Some scenes were really well and tightly written and enjoyable, and then others, the quality just dropped. And there wasn’t even a Littlefinger around to blame! Though admittedly, the scene where Shae and Tyrion talked about him had probably the worst writing. Was anything Shae said even remotely coherent from one sentence to another?
Julia: Is she just really committed to the Girlfriend Experience or are we supposed to think this is a real relationship? Like, why is this sex worker upset that he once engaged the services of another sex worker?
I think it’s at least a soft original material-book scene dichotomy this week. The best written original scene was probably the one with
Carol Cersei and Joff, but then you had… all the other stuff. There were scenes that were just middling, I guess, like where Mance explains his backstory.
Kylie: The Jaime and Brienne scenes were some of the best writing in the episode, and also some of the only scenes that included book content as they were supposed to be. But Jana is right; we’d go from that one moment to the horror of Shae and Tyrion’s nonversation. Possibly the first true nonversation of the show?
Our 8th grade book report (on themes)
Julia: Well the title is kind of appropriate because Robb got those two bad news ravens. Not that they quoted the proverb. Also, why is Lord Karstark delivering messages now?
I’m kind of nowhere in terms of overall theme. The best I can do is that people are bonding and consolidating relationships. I’m thinking especially of Marg and Joff, Cat and Talisa, Jamie and Brienne, and Jon and Mance. There are also new relationships that will be important later; Sansa and Marg, the Reeds and Bran, Arya and the Hound, (who never really interacted before, as far as I can recall) Ramsay and Theon (barf).
Jana: Yes, I was considering something along those lines as well. Uneasy alliances, maybe? False friends? Though that might be more hindsight than anything substantial in this episode.
Kylie: “People in groups of varying sizes doing things.” No, “uneasy alliances” is the closest at making sense, and it actually works fairly well. Don’t forget Rast and Sam, too.
The Butterfly Effect
Kylie: Biggest one I see in effect here is with Cat’s scripting. D&D made no efforts to sympathize with her or her viewpoint in Season 1, which is why we get Cat telling Ned to stay in Winterfell. The political advancement of her family? The legitimate concerns over Jon’s potential claim? Never in evidence, so now we get her mistreatment of him played as just…she was petty and jealous and couldn’t love a baby because he had a stranger’s brown eyes.
Jana: No kidding. If I didn’t know any better, you could almost say that Catelyn’s dynastic worries were completely taken out of the show to make it more palpable for the average watcher when Jon becomes king, and that’d be a great move. But that’s also assuming the writers planned more than one season at a time, and, well…
Julia: They just don’t see Cat as a political actor at all. Even when she went to talk to Renly it was only because Robb asked her to, remember. All this personal and political stuff goes right over their heads. The closest they ever got was with Theon, and we all saw how that turned out.
Kylie: It’s early Season 3 and we’re already at the point of legitimizing a bastard being painted as an unquestionably good thing. GAH.
Julia: Okay, I know I’ve been mentioning this every week, but why do they continue to dig this Shae hole? Now she’s defending other woman from sexual exploitation?
Jana: I actually kind of like the scenes with Sansa and Shae, at least right now. I mean, it is clearly a different Shae than the one in the books, and those moments at least make her somewhat likable. I also think that in theory, having someone for Sansa to bounce her inner monologue off of could have helped the show, a lot, with its portrayal of Sansa, buuuut that sure as hell isn’t happening here.
Kylie: I do think Sansa needs someone for that (and why Dontos couldn’t have fill the role is beyond me). But it’s not really in the service of Sansa at all. In fact, the scenes are mostly just Shae imparting worldly advice on the continually naive Sansa, and then whipping out some weird ‘empowered’ lines, like how she’s totally going to make Littlefinger stop. I guess because she runs around with daggers? Or goes to Tyrion with her problems?
I guess I’m torn on it, is what I mean. I like Sansa having someone she can be nice to, even if this is all going to get thrown out the window. But Shae’s scripting is a sore thumb for this worldbuilding.
Jana: They’re doing an all in all okay job with Jaime and Brienne. Yes, she’s more of a brute, and yes, maybe he goes on about Renly being gay a little too much, but other than that… Or maybe I’m just distracted by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (NCW) getting to actually do something again. God, he used to be so good as Jaime when he was allowed to be kind of clever and not just Carol’s beleaguered brother-lover.
Julia: You mean befuddled.
Jana: Larry was very much both beleaguered and befuddled.
Kylie: Agreed. And to be honest, I adore the way NCW and Gwendoline Christie play off of each other. This is what happens when you give actors actual content and motivation. From what I can tell NCW still tries to make sense of things. Poor guy.
Jana: Don’t mind me, I’ll be over here yelling about how they’re PERFECT AND THIS COULD HAVE BEEN SO GREAT AAAAAH but instead we try to normalize twincest for a few years, no biggie.
Julia: I just realized that the changes to Shae and her foregrounding have effectively made Sansa’s plot all about Tyrion even before they get married. But can we please indulge me and talk about why we think the stuff with Shae is happening?
Jana: My best guess as to why the Shae stuff is happening is basically that Tyrion, the precious saint-like audience avatar main protagonist hero, can’t just be fucking a regular sex worker who doesn’t care about him and his amazingness, which is why Shae is given a personality, traits that make her likable (see above points about caring for Sansa), and an informed knack for intrigue. And like, if it didn’t end the way it did, having Ros and Shae meddle with the politics of the big boys might have been a worthwhile plotline. Shae might have been a really nice example for how ladies-in-waiting are used to spy and all that. However, there was still an endpoint to get to, so all the crumbs we’re thrown here are completely meaningless in the long run.
Kylie: It’s so hard for me to understand what they were trying for with Ros in this. Because there is a bit of a throughline about maids and sex workers spying and having outcomes on the politics of the Highborn for sure. But yeah, it was a plotline without space for it, so it just ended up being this…weirdness that gets thrown out the window.
The most confusing part for me is how Martin has praised Shae’s scripting, and not an inconsequential number of times.
Jana: Eh, he is good friends with the actor. And to be fair, Shae is an actual character who at least occasionally seems to genuinely care about Tyrion and has character traits other than being out for self-preservation and good at playing the role she’s being paid to play. It paints Tyrion in a better light and make him more likable in the long run. But that only work if that was GRRM’s actual goal for Tyrion, which I doubt. I’m pretty sure Tyrion being flawed the way he is is very much the point of the character… Or maybe not. It’s hard to say at this point. The Shae thing is going to collapse hard next season, so for now it just seems like too much effort put into the wrong thing.
Julia: Right!? She just has so much screen time. Is it true or apocryphal that she has more lines than Cat this season?
Jana: I don’t have the numbers, but she definitely…does more than Cat. Has more agency than Cat, which is admittedly a low bar to clear, but nothing an ascended extra should be able to do next to a POV character.
Kylie: If it helps, Catelyn’s end tally is more than Shae’s across all their seasons? I feel like it doesn’t help.
Carol Watch: who is Cersei this week?
Kylie: I’m leaning towards Carol. We had nice slut-shaming digs at Marg’s wardrobe that could have gone either way, but we’re beginning to get that sad mom who can’t control her wild kid framing of it all.
Julia: Yeah, I’m going for full Carol. She’s totally right about the sinister nature of Marg’s risque wardrobe. And the patriarchy!
Jana: No kidding. And Joffrey yelling at her about what wise women do is very much like how people are going to be mean to Carol in the future. What happened to the woman who slapped Joffrey for talking back to her last season?
Kylie: It’s official then:
Exposition Imposition: good or clunky?
Julia: Um, Jojen gave us some myth arc exposition, I guess. We learn about anal sex? And FYI, Lord Karstark, it probably snows all the time in Dorne. They have mountains.
Jana: The guy yelling at Sam was kind of telling us What Happened So Far, but it made sense in context, I guess, and the only reason I noticed it was because I was looking for it.
If you’re generous, Joffrey tries to give us exposition about Westerosi views on homosexuality that are somehow not shared by anyone else making fun of Renly and Loras this episode. Did we mention that in the themes? People make fun of Renly and/or Loras being gay a lot this episode.
Kylie: The most seamless exposition was over lemon cakes, when Olenna was complaining about her various family members and her views on their political alliance. But we can’t exactly credit Vanessa Taylor for that one, can we?
I will say one bit of subtle exposition was that Theon is captive of the Boltons. He was on the wooden cross, and then we see the men displaying that later, which Jaime calls attention to with his, “a bit gruesome for my taste.” It was enough to preserve suspense, but it rewards a close watch, which is not anything I can say about the show now.
Julia: The problem with good exposition is that you don’t always notice it.
Kylie: Why do I feel like we should make that into a shirt?
How was the pacing?
Julia: This episode was 57 minutes long, so maybe it wasn’t the pacing that made it feel like it was taking forever. Though I do remember screaming, “am I seriously only 25 minutes in!?” at one point.
Jana: They had a LOT of scenes that were just going nowhere, or had especially frustrating content like the Cat Self Roast and Shae wildly fluctuating between actual nagging girlfriend and the girlfriend experience bought and paid for. Those scenes and the torture scenes dragged somewhat, the rest was fine.
Kylie: It was endless, absolutely endless. Griffin asked me, “Is it over now?” about three times, and I was just as horrified to discover it wasn’t too. It’s interesting, because the pace wasn’t slower in the way Season 7 scenes are slower, where people just walk across the screen for thirty seconds without saying anything. Instead, each scene itself felt pretty packed, but just packed with nothing.
Let’s talk about sex, baby
Kylie: Most sexual aspect of this episode was Marg explaining Renly’s gayness to Joff, and then getting him turned on with a crossbow. I guess there was also Shae’s blowjob to Tyrion after yelling about his attraction to Ros and Sansa.
I don’t know what to do with Marg to be honest. It seems so sinister now, knowing that Littlefinger will give Sansa the advise of “make him yours” to Ramsey, and her failure to do so resulted in her brutalization (at least, the framing of it). Here, we have the successful “make him yours” campaign by Margaery, and boy does she just wield her sexuality so effectively. I understand Vanessa Taylor wrote this episode, but this entire plotline was scripted by D&D, and it’s clear they think women really can successful control “monsters” if they weaponize their womanly bodies properly.
Jana: I’m also just gonna call it— Natalie Dormer already looks way too old for these interactions to not feel an entirely different kind of creepy than they’re meant to be. I know the show is very vague on their ages and all, but there’s at least a 10 year age difference there and Joffrey is in his teens. Not a good look. Nothing compared to what comes later, but already not a good look.
Julia: Does Shae explaining to Sansa “the only thing that men ever want” count as sexual content? Why am I so effing obsessed with Shae?
Kylie: Someone’s gotta teach Sansa about the awfulness of the world, since she’s sure as hell not learning about it inherently or having a survival narrative. Isn’t this the year where we find out she doesn’t know the word, “shit”?
Jana: Well, remember how Sansa is such a slow learner? How could she have figured any of this out if not for the help of others? But yes, the sheep shift scene is in episode 10, newlyweds being nice to each other for some reason, juuust before the news of the Red Wedding arrives. I have no idea why any of that happened, but hey. Eight episodes to go until then.
In memoriam…Hoster Tully
Julia: Did anyone die?
Jana: Catelyn’s self-respect and self-worth. That died. And from what I recall, also her relevance for the rest of the season.
Oh and I guess we find out about Hoster Tully dying off-screen.
Kylie: Just Hoster Tully. I actually liked Cat’s lines about her manacles in relation to that, though may have been more effective if the guy had ever been mentioned prior to this episode. I miss the Whispering Wood monologue.
Julia: I just miss Cat.
Jana: I miss Cat’s plot.
Kylie: I miss Your Sister.
Maybe she’ll be back next week? We’ll have to wait to find out, but that’s a wrap for today. What did you guys think of the episode? Did the Cat/Shae/Margaery stuff overshadow everything else for you, or were they not as bad as we were making them out?
We certainly look forward to continuing on in Season 3, to see what’s in store for us in The Wars to Come.
Images courtesy of HBO
My First Queer: 90s Fantasy Novels
This article is part of the My First Queer series, a site-wide series of articles written by some of our non-straight Fandomentals contributors. Each will contain their thoughts on their first experiences with queer media and what it meant to them. Enjoy!
Oh look, Gretchen is going to be writing about books, big surprise! Like Kristen before me in this series, I didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up. Books were my escape, especially fantasy books. As conservative evangelical Christians, my parents were all about making sure our little child brains were as free from the ‘corrupting influences of the world’ as possible, hence why I watched so little TV and why it took me so long to figure out I was queer. Fortunately for me, my parents trusted my instincts with books. Granted, I was a compliant child who didn’t go out of my way to find anything subversive. If the cover art wasn’t scandalous and the dust jacket seemed free of ‘questionable content’, I could read it.
With literally hundreds of books passing through my hands over the first decade and a half of my life, if I still remember a scene from a book I read only once and decades ago, it meant something to me. Sometime last year, I reflected on these handful of books seared into my soul. Once you look at them, it’s pretty telling why these are the stories I remember.
The Eagle and The Nightingales by Mercedes Lackey (1995)
Sometime in late middle school/early high school, I picked up one of Mercedes Lackey’s books at the local library and proceeded to devour every available book of hers I could get my hands on. I can’t remember which book of hers I read first, but they left an indelible impression on me.
Part of Lackey’s Bardic Voices series, The Eagle and The Nightingales tells the story of Nightingale a Free Bard (someone who wields magic through music) tasked with finding out why the human king and churches are growing overtly hostile to non-human sentient beings and other classes of people they cannot directly control. She joins forces with T’yfrr a member of the Haspur, a race of humanoid eagles who has an angelic voice. Over the course of the book, the two become not only quest partners, but lovers.
So what? I can imagine you thinking. What does a bard and a bird-man have to do with ‘my first queer’? Fair point, dear reader. On the surface, T’yfrr and Nightingale are differently gendered and so seem to fit a heterosexual mold. However, as a young teen, an interspecies relationship felt as ‘forbidden’ and ‘taboo’ as anything overtly gay. There was something…queer about it even if it featured a female human and a male humanoid eagle. Especially in the story’s context of non-humans being persecuted by the church (*cough cough*) and interspecies relationships being considered taboo by the church but accepted in T’yfrr’s culture. Conversations Nightingale has with T’yfrr mirror conversations Vanyel, one of Lackey’s openly gay characters, has about being attracted to men.
Ultimately, it’s a story about discrimination against marginalized people groups and finding love in unexpected places that your society might find taboo but that’s just their (wrong, bigoted) opinion. That struck a chord with me that I couldn’t label. I just really, really liked it okay? And it made a lot of sense to me and made me feel seen for some reason. (Like I said, really telling looking back.) It was also a really well-written story, the best of the Free Bard series (of which this is the third book), in my opinion. We won’t talk about Four and Twenty Blackbirds. I like to pretend that book never happened.
Admittedly, certain aspects of The Eagle and the Nightingales didn’t age well. While the complicated politics and theme of acceptance are still relevant today, the entire Free Bard series features ‘gypsies’ prominently. Lackey’s characterization of the culture she calls ‘gypsy’ is positive, if a bit stereotypical. The real problem is her use of the word ‘gypsy’ at all. I know, I know. This is a fantasy book from the 90s. In that context, her free use of that word to describe a nomadic, Romani-like people is understandable. At the same time, understandable doesn’t mean problem-free and I would be remiss, even in my reminiscences, to overlook that rather glaring issue.
The Last Herald-Mage Series by Mercedes Lackey (1989-1990)
This brings me to the aforementioned Vanyel. The three books in this series—Magic’s Pawn, Magic’s Promise, and Magic’s Price—tell the story of Vanyel Ashkevron, the greatest Herald-Mage in the history of Valdemar. He presents at first as a bored, coddled, vain pretty-boy disinterested in running his family estate. That veneer hides the reality that he’s an emotionally neglected, highly introverted and intuitive, sensitive child who suffers from his father being overbearing and believing he’s ‘not a proper man’. His homophobic father, who fears he is shay’a’chern, the in-universe term for gay, sends him to train as a swordsman to ‘make a man’ out of him.’
Vanyel meets a Herald-Mage trainee, Tylendel, who is openly gay and sparks Vanyel’s understanding of himself. The two become lovers and lifebonded (aka soulmates), but in a magical tragedy, Tylendel dies (don’t worry, I’ll come back to this). The event also awakens Vanyel’s mage gift. In the aftermath, he learns he possesses all of the Heraldic gifts and becomes the most powerful Herald-Mage to ever exist. Eventually he meets another shay’a’chern couple from the mysterious human clan of the Tayledras, the Hawkbrothers known as Moondance and Starwind. Being gay in their society is not taboo, so they teach him to accept his orientation as normal and beautiful. He also meets a bard named Stefan, the reincarnation of his soulmate Tylendel.
Vanyel dies at the end of the series fighting against Valdemar’s enemies. However, that’s not the end for him. He’s given a choice to continue protecting Valdemar, so he, Stefan/Tylendel, and Vanyel’s psycially linked horse Companion Yfandes (it makes sense in context, I promise; she’s like a platonic soulmate who helps him with magic) become spirit protectors on Valdemar’s border.
Admittedly, Lackey killing of Tylendel to awaken Vanyel’s mage gifts doesn’t sit well after recent conversations about the representation of queer characters. Maybe I’m nostalgic and too kind because of what these books meant to me, but the events never struck me as Bury Your Gays (BYG), even as a kid. Lackey goes out of her way to normalize Vanyel’s sexuality, villainize his homophobic father, an even reincarnates Tylendel in the form of Stefan.
Vanyel’s heroic sacrifice at the end doesn’t feel like BYG either. His death isn’t intended to punish him for being gay, which is the root of the BYG trope. In fact, he gets a happy ending, even in death. He, his soulmate Tylendel/Stefan, and his platonic soulmate Companion Yfandes live forever doing what he wanted most in the world: protecting Valdemar.
Oh, and he has four biological children to carry on his legacy, though I honestly can’t remember how the sperm donor thing worked. Twins Brightstar and Firefeather are raised by the Tayledras shay’a’chern couple Vanyel meets. He also fathers Avren, the daughter of lesbian swordfighters in his older sister Lissa’s command. Most important is Jisa, daughter of Shavri, the king’s co-consort. Basically, the king is infertile but no one knows that, so Vanyel agrees to be the donor in secret. As Jisa ends up marrying the heir, the entire rest of the royal line in the Valdemar series descends from Vanyel.
Plus, Vanyel’s story is so central to the worldbuilding and history of Valdemar that without him, the rest of Valdemar wouldn’t make sense. So even in hindsight, I have a hard time labeling this as BYG. He’s just too important a character and everything else about the story resists being boiled down to, “he and Tylendel died because they were gay.”
Anyway, back to why these books were important to me. I related to Vanyel on a deeply personal level. He was introverted, misunderstood, and suffered from both neglect and direct emotional and verbal abuse. He’s deeply emotional and struggles with depression. He’s mocked by friends and family for being ‘moody’ and not fitting into society’s expectations for his gender. Because of the abuse he suffered, he both feared and desperately wanted intimacy yet denied himself the opportunities to open up for fear of getting hurt. Hey! That was me. Reading about Vanyel felt like Lackey had peered into my soul and put what she found on page. And that was aside from him being gay.
Even though reading these books didn’t immediately make me understand my sexuality, following Vanyel’s journey of discovering his sexual orienation deeply impacted me. I got to read it in real time, watch him figure it out, struggle with the implications, and learn to accept and embrace it by being told it was normal. He gave me the first glimpse of something I didn’t realize was true of myself. I just really, really liked and identified with him okay? I was a shay’a’chern…ally.
Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy (1994)
Before Lackey, there was Lovejoy and Cohen’s Seven Daughters and Seven Sons. I read this in 5th grade, having picked it off of my teacher’s classroom library shelf because it was based on an Iraqi folktale. I loved (and still do love) all kinds of folktales, myths, and fairy tales, especially non-Western stories. Buran’s story became my favorite, though over time I forgot the title and it took me years to track it down again.
Buran is the fourth of seven daughters living in Baghdad. Everyone in the city shuns her father for not having sons; her uncle—father to seven sons—especially like to throw Buran’s family’s poverty and seeming lack of favor from Allah in their face. Not content to see her family suffer, Buran disguises herself as a man, travels to Tyre, and sets up shop as a successful merchant while maintaining her masculine disguise.
Mahmud, the prince of Tyre visits her shop often, and Buran finds herself falling in love with him and he with her, though she’s still disguised as a man. Soon after he realizes his in love with Buran-in-disguise, Mahmud has a moment where he begins to wonder if she is a woman. So, he sets about testing her to prove her gender. Fearing discovery and the loss of friendship and her business she uses to support her family, Buran uses her wits to pass Mahmud’s first two tests. The third, to meet him at the baths, she flees from as it would reveal her identity. Donning women’s clothing, she heads home, encountering two of her male cousins, whose position in life has much diminished since she left. Her family, on the other hand, is rich and her sisters have married well due to her business acumen.
Her family pressures her to marry, but her heart belongs to Mahmud, though she cannot admit it. Rejecting social expectations of her, Buran determines to never marry and leave her fortune to her sisters’ children. However, Prince Mahmud eventually finds her and the two get married and live happily ever after.
Stories about women who disguise themselves as men and have a prince fall in love with them exist in a strange limbo between queer and heteronormative, depending on how the author frames the prince. Lovejoy and Cohen straddle that line in an interesting way. On the one hand, the story lets the prince believe himself in love with Nasir—Buran’s masculine name—for almost two pages. There’s even a highly sexually charged scene between the two of them told from Prince Mahmud’s perspective. But then Mahmud has a rather convenient insight that Nasir is actually a woman in disguise. It simultaneously feels less homophobic than it could have been and as heteronormative as people who don’t want to acknowledge that Li Shang in Mulan was totally in love with Ping and flagrantly bisexual.
Still, as a child, it was eye-opening to read a story about a man who falls in love with another man, only to realize she’s a woman. And Buran was definitely a character I both admired and identified with. I, too, wanted to be more than what my conservative environment said a woman should be. I admired her courage, her intelligence, and her unwillingness to submit to societal expectations for what it meant to be a woman. There’s a bit of Not Like Other Girls, but no more than Vanyel felt like Not Like Other Boys. They’re both characters who didn’t quite fit in and found a way to embrace and celebrate who they were. Once again, to not-yet-aware-of-her-queerness-Gretchen something about Buran and Mahmud struck home.
And then there was the scene where Buran strips naked and looks at herself as a woman after living as a man for years.
“When I got back to my room, my own safe little room in Jihha’s house, I bade the servant leave the candle, and then I dismissed him. I took off all of my clothes, every single piece, and then I stared down at my naked self. I saw the gentle swell of my two breasts, small, but firm and high, with smooth golden flesh giving way to rosy nipples. I saw the slight curve of my belly, which would never, ever be absolutely flat, no matter how thin and hard the rest of me might be. Beneath my narrow waist, my two hips curved like two crescent moons and between my legs, black hair curled in tiny ringlets.” (p. 151-152)
Poor little 10-year-old baby bisexual Gretchen did not know what to do with the confusing feelings reading that passage awakened in her. I’ll be honest, this was the scene that stuck in my mind for years. Until recently, I had no idea why. Looking back now, I can 100% label it as the first viscerally, “Oh shit, I’m queer,” moment of my life. It only took me 20 more years to unpack it, but this book is the piece de resistance of young queer Gretchen.
So these were my first queer inklings. Strange, I know. Two of the stories weren’t even explicitly queer and the other featured a gay protagonist, not a woman-loving-woman (wlw). But they meant something to me. They planted seeds in my repressed, survival-mentality brain that would only come to fruition many years later. For a survivor of CSA and abuse who literally had no framework for understanding being a wlw, these books were the only shreds I had of a part of myself I didn’t have words for. Yes, they were problematic in some ways. Yes, they were imperfect matches to my own experience. But they were literally all I had.
As I said at the outset, these are stories I vividly remembered years later. Even if I couldn’t remember the name of the book, I remembered scenes or interactions that felt…significant to me in some unnamed as yet way. However flawed they are, they hold a special place in my soul.
They’re also the reason why I write mainstream SFF novels. I know there are other kids out there who don’t know they’re queer just like I didn’t. Kids who wouldn’t think to pick up a book explicitly labeled as ‘queer’ either because they don’t think that’s who they are or because their situation at home wouldn’t allow them to. (My parents would have banned any book labeled that way on sight.) Kids waiting to pick up a book about mages or queens or space colonists and see a protagonist who loves in a way they didn’t know was possible.
So in the end, they gave me even more of myself than I ever could have imagined. This is why stories matter.